Our trip to Hawaii in 2012 included two islands; Hawaii and Oahu. We covered the Big Island in two other posts and it is a wonderful place. Today’s post covers the best of Oahu. Now the snobs out there will say, “Why did you go there? We had a MUCH better time locked away in our exclusive beach resort on Maui.” While this might be great, you would miss a lot of what makes Hawaii a special place. So maybe next time, we go to some of the more exclusive islands, but I think for a first trip there, you should not miss Oahu.
The first criticism is that it’s too crowded. While there are almost a million people on the island, most are concentrated in the Honolulu metropolitan area along the southern shore. As you go east and north of the city, the numbers quickly thin out. The interior of the island is quite mountainous and parts are nearly deserted. The second gripe the Hawaii snobs have is that it is too commercialized. We found it charming with a sense of history that you don’t find on the other islands where life is concentrated in the big resorts.
More than any place we’ve gone, it is important to pick a good base of operations in Hawaii. You can stay at a hotel, and pay far more, and eat all your meals out. Or you can do a little work and get a place like we did right on the beach with a beautiful lanai and the sounds of crashing surf lulling you to sleep each night. Having a kitchen means you don’t have to eat all your meals out. Breakfast and lunches become very affordable which allows you to splurge on dinner. The island is small compared to the Big Island, and it is easy to travel places and return home.
The season you visit is also important. We went in March when the winter swells are still pretty strong on the north and eastern shores. Some of the less sheltered beaches are closed to swimming, although this is prime big surf country.
Flying in from the Big Island, we picked up our rental car and were at our beach bungalow in about an hour. Hauula is on the east coast about three-quarters of the way up right on HI-83 that snakes between the vertical mountains and the sea.
I will construct a day trip to see the main sights, but I would advise spreading things out over a couple of days if you have the time. You can spend a day in almost all the places.
1. Hauula to Sunset Beach, 15 miles
As you go north, you pass the Polynesian Culture Center where native Hawaiians in native garb do native dances and you can sample native food. This is the first place you should miss. You want this stuff, go to Epcot.
Our first stop is Mecca for big wave surfers. Sunset Beach is right off HI-83 just around the northern point of the island. This place is a wading pool in the summer, but in the winter, it’s not uncommon to see 30+ foot waves breaking and dozens of surfers trying to ride them. Max went straight out into the water and quick thinking by lifeguards helped me fish him out before things got too hairy. Right afterward, the “No Swimming” signs went up, so we sat on the beach and watched them surf. This is something I will never do. I have no desire to do it. But I can admire the men and women who are crazy enough to do it.
2. Sunset Beach to Waimea Falls, 5 miles
As you leave Sunset, continue west on HI-38 about 5 miles. The road crosses a stream coming out of the mountains and empties into a small bay with an absolutely beautiful beach. Our destination is actually this small stream. Waimea Falls is a private park. The fee is not too expensive. There is a shuttle that will take you up the valley, but I recommend that you take the half-mile walk. There is plenty to see as the grounds are landscaped with all kinds of cool tropical foliage. Oh, and bring your swimming gear.
The end of the trail is a cool pool of clear water under a cascading waterfall. Your admission entitles you to jump in and swim over to the falls. I was here back in 1982 with a friend of mine and there was a nice bar with changing facilities, but everything was wiped out in a flash flood a few years back. But the pool and the falls are still there.
My buddy back in 1982 was a Hawaii veteran that had been here many times with his family growing up. He really talked up this place and when we swam across to the falls, he climbed out of the water and started to climb up the rocks to one side. The lifeguard yelled at him over the speaker to come down. We swam back over and he put up a huge fuss. “I’ve been here dozens of times and I’ve always dived off the rocks”. Finally they got tired of arguing with him and whipped out these release forms which we promptly signed. Back in the water and this time up the rocks.
He got about 30 feet up to this small rock ledge where he turned around and executed a perfect swan dive into the pool. The fifty or so people around the pool oohed and ahhhed. Then they looked at me. I was 24 and not real bright. Plus I figured my buddy survived, so off I went. Not quite as graceful, but I got good air and a round of applause when I got back to the near shore.
No sooner had we sat down with a well-earned beer, this fanfare starts playing over the loudspeakers. These two guys come out complete with life jackets and crash helmets, jump into the water and swim to the falls. They climb up the same rocks to the same ledge, get a drumroll, then dive off.
Big freakin’ deal.
Fast forward to 2012, and me and Max ain’t diving. We did swim over to the falls and had a really great time. As you’re likely to spend most of your time in the ocean, it’s kind of nice to swim in a cool freshwater mountain pool with a water fall.
3. Waimea Falls to Hanauma Bay, 50 miles
Back in the ocean. We are going from the northwest corner of Oahu to the southeast corner, about as far as you can go. About 50 miles, straight through Honolulu. So watch the time of day as there can be traffic. On the east side of the city, follow the signs for HI-72 that goes right to Hanauma Bay.
You may be an experienced diver like me. Or maybe you’ve been places where you can snorkel on coral reefs. Or maybe you’ve always wanted to try, but it was a bit on the scary side. Hanauma Bay is the place for you no matter what your experience level. The park consists of a pretty nice beach that fringes a submerged ancient volcano crater. The result is an almost perfectly sheltered reef that is typically no more than waist deep. So this this the ideal place to take kids to learn how to snorkel.
We bring our own gear, but they rent it at the park. You sit through a short film that tells you the dos and don’ts of reef snorkeling. It comes down to this. Don’t stand on the reef, it’ll kill the coral. No coral, no fish. Luckily, the reefs are perfectly arranged so that they surround large stretches of sand where it is safe to stand. And oh, the fish you can see here. I’ve been diving all over the Caribbean, and I saw twice the variety of fish here. We spent hours.
4. Hanauma Bay to the Punchbowl National Cemetery of the Pacific, 14 miles
I was lucky enough to grow up with many World War II veterans. Sadly, there are very few left. These were truly the greatest generation of Americans. In a few years, they will all be gone. They live on in this place. High above the city is a quiet tree-lined shrine to the veterans of wars in the Pacific. Unlike many national cemeteries, white crosses do not stretch stretch as far as you can see. Instead, small headstones are recessed into the ground giving the whole place a park-like feel. In the center is a large staircase, flanked by huge monuments with the names of those who died in the Pacific. Every so often, one is gilt with gold denoting a Congressional Medal of Honor winner. At the top of the steps is an arched portico with coral and turquoise mosaics of the major battles in the Pacific. This place is a historian’s dream come true.
The Punchbowl and nearby Pearl Harbor are part of what make it important to come to Oahu. It’s something that you and especially your kids need to see.
5. Punchbowl to Pearl Harbor, 10 miles
Coming down off the volcano into the Honolulu, you can appreciate the beautiful setting. With Waikiki Beach below you and Diamond Head off to the east framing the white buildings, there may be no prettier urban area. But imagine yourself nearly 75 years ago as you were enjoying a Sunday morning above the city, you hear the sound of planes; hundreds of them flying right overhead from the north.
Much has been written about the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. I’ll only add that to visit here it is an experience not to be missed, especially if you have children. The US Navy has made this a wonderful place to visit. You can tour a WW2-era submarine, the battleship Missouri which was the site of the Japanese surrender in Tokyo harbor in 1945, but take the time to visit the USS Arizona memorial.
You attend a short film on the history of the attack, then board a launch for a short trip across the harbor. A platform has been anchored directly above the Arizona which sank with many of its hands below after taking a direct hit to its ammunition magazine. It’s a sobering thought to think of the hundreds of men below you while fuel oil still bubbles to the surface after so much time. The names of the dead are inscribed on the memorial along with the flags of each state. It is hard not to tear up even writing about it.
6. Back to Hauula, 31 miles
It’s a short trip back to Honolulu and over the Likelike Pass to get back to our beach house. I should mention that there is more of the island west of Pearl Harbor, but I didn’t find it as interesting as the other places we went. You could stop in downtown Honolulu and walk along Waikiki Beach. Get the iconic picture of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel with Diamond Head in the background. It sounds cheesy, but it is absolutely beautiful, putting any other urban beach to shame.
We haven’t talked much about food. I’m a big believer in eating at small local places where ever possible. Such a place is the Hauula BBQ (Trip Advisor Review). Less than a mile from our place and the food was outstanding, Korean BBQ with “normal” stuff for your 8 year old.
Obviously, if you go to Oahu, you’re going to be there for a few days. I crammed everything into one day, but don’t rush if you don’t have to. Two days with the beaches and Waimea Falls on one day, and Honolulu and Pearl Harbor on a second day would be ideal.
Hope you enjoyed Oahu as much as I enjoyed remembering it. Don’t listen to your bonehead friends who tell you, “Why would you ever want to go there?”
Daytripping with Rick